The Ashes

What a weekend for British sport; and it’s about to get a whole lot better.  If anything can top the Murray/Lions euphoria, 22 men from England and Australia playing for a comedy, pint-sized urn can.  With more thrills and spills than Michael Barrymore’s Christmas party, this series has already had more than its fair share of controversies – and a ball hasn’t even been bowled yet.  Many so called ‘experts’ are predicting an easy England victory but this blog (always 100% accurate with its predictions) isn’t so sure.

 

            On the face of it, the Australian cricket team is in absolute turmoil.  They sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur, two weeks ago; one of their batsmen (David Warner) punched an England player (Joe Root) in a nightclub and was banned from playing in the warm-up matches; and when they played India, earlier this year (whom England beat 2-1 just before Christmas) they got absolutely hammered 4-0.  The Aussies also suspended four of their players for failing to do their homework on the India tour.  So far, so good from an England perspective.

 

            The reality is not necessarily so rosy.  Australia have appointed ex-batsman Darren Lehmann as their new coach which is something of a masterstroke.  Unlike the draconian Arthur, Lehmann is a people’s person from the old-school, someone who will encourage and galvanise the side and this makes them potentially very dangerous.  Lehmann will install some stereotypical hard Aussie grit back into the team and make them very hard to beat.  The tourists may not be as technically gifted as England but you can bet your bottom Australian dollar that Lehmann will extract every last drop of determination out of his side.  The mental side of sport is too often ignored, but in this case it can and probably will make a big difference to the Australian side England will face on Wednesday and the side they faced in the Champions Trophy four weeks ago.

 

            Australia have the luxury of the world’s best batsman, captain Michael Clarke, in their ranks  Since the beginning of 2012 he has been a run machine, scoring four Test double-centuries (one of them was a triple century) in a single calendar year.  Clarke’s back has been playing up a bit recently but if he’s fully fit, England will have a serious job on their hands shifting him.  Supporting their captain will be Chris Rogers and Shane Watson.  Rogers is very much a horses for courses selection who has excelled for years in English domestic cricket.  Watson has oodles of talent but in 75 innings for the Baggy Greens, he only has two centuries to his name.  At 32 it is now or never for the broad-chested all-rounder and Australia will need him to improve on his current record.

 

            Much has been written about the vaunted England attack but there has been relatively little said about the Australian bowlers.  Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc all have the armoury to excel in English conditions, and James Pattison and James Faulkner in particular look like very promising seamers.  Starc could be the trump card for the Aussies.  He is a handy lower-order batsman and crucially bowls left-arm fast.  Another left-armer, New Zealand’s Trent Boult, caused serious problems for the England batting order earlier this year and Starc will try to exploit that weakness.  Siddle also has had success in English conditions, taking 20 wickets in the 2009 series.  His consistency, pace and aggression is bound to trouble the English batsmen this summer.  The current weather could in fact negate their impact and may in fact play into England’s hands.  The hosts are more experienced in these drier conditions.  James Anderson is a master of reverse-swing and also bowls brilliant cutters when the ball is not doing much.  The Australians are yet to prove they can bowl effectively in batsman-friendly conditions.

 

            That is not to suggest that the Australian bowlers won’t get opportunities.  I have felt for some time that England’s batting order is a little too brittle and recently they have failed to post the sort of imposing first innings totals that were commonplace between 2009 and 2011.  England have two relative newcomers in the top six (Root and Jonny Bairstow) who will no doubt come in for some special treatment during the series.  They Yorkshire pair have both had impressive starts to their test careers but nothing can prepare them for the intensity of series against the old enemy.  The decision to open with Root is certainly a bold move – one that represents England’s faith and confidence in the 22 year-old.  Both their performances could well be a deciding factor in the destination of the urn.

 

            One area England do have a significant advantage is in the spin department.  Since his début in 2008, Graeme Swann has risen to become one of, if not the best spin bowler in the world.  The likeable Nottinghamshire man has the ability to bowl in all conditions be it in a containing capacity or as a wicket-taker.  With all due respect to Australia’s Nathan Lyon, England’s top-6 are hardly going to be having nightmares about his off-spin.  In a move that smacks of desperation, Australia have called up newly qualified native, Fawad Ahmed into their A squad who are also touring England this summer but he has barely played any first-class cricket, let alone test cricket.  Even if he does get called up, I find it hard to believe that he will immediately become some sort of world-beater.

           

            On paper, England have a far stronger team.  Their batting is superior to Australia’s, the seamers and spinner are more experienced and England have a wonderful wicket-keeper/batsman in Matt Prior.  But cricket matches are rarely, if ever, won on paper.  This Australian side is dangerous; they have absolutely nothing to lose.  They have a new coach who will have boosted morale no end and if the key players perform, like Clarke, Shane Watson, Siddle and Starc, and England aren’t at their best, the Aussies have more than just a chance of victory.  All this talk of England winning 5-0 is complete nonsense.  It will be a lot closer than that.  The series will be won during two or three key sessions.  Whoever performs when it matters most will be lifting the little urn at the Oval in late August.  I hope (and think) it will be England but you can unfortunately never discount the Aussies.

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England’s batsmen need to improve

England’s 170-run victory on Sunday was seriously impressive but it papered over the obvious cracks in the batting order.  Totals of 232 and 213 don’t really cut the mustard at international level and they needed their bowlers and some very injudicious shots from New Zealand to get them out of jail.  Against better teams they would have come unstuck and they cannot afford to repeat these batting collapses in the Ashes.

            England’s batting, especially in the first innings was worryingly pedestrian.  To score 160 in 80 overs is even slower than Geoffrey Boycott’s pet tortoise.  True, the outfield was overly lush which limited boundaries and the New Zealand bowlers were very accurate with the swinging ball, but England seemed to go into their shell instead of looking to rotate the strike with singles.  One man who was particularly guilty of this was Nick Compton; not naturally the quickest scorer in the world he scratched around for a painful hour and a half for 16 paltry runs.  Equally, his opening partner, captain Alastair Cook took two and a half hours for his 32.  Now there is nothing wrong with slow scoring as long as one is positive in one’s intent.  It was the first innings of the international summer so it is totally understandable that the batsmen were not at their most fluent but it seemed that at points, England were just aiming to survive instead of making the bowler think; for instance by batting out of the crease to disrupt the New Zealand attack’s length.

            The batsmen were much improved in the second innings until a wonderful spell by Tim Southee put the brakes on England’s total.  Joe Root and Jonathan Trott looked in good nick.  Root in particular has a very solid technique which has helped him flourish in the international arena.  He has a knack of making the bowler bowl to him so consequently he can manoeuvre the ball around the ground almost at will.  His mentality is impressive too – he is not afraid to knuckle down and build an innings patiently, as he demonstrated over the winter in India and New Zealand.

            However, England cannot rely on a rookie to score their runs.  It worries me that when Alistair Cook fails, the rest of the batting order looks vulnerable.  Trott is not scoring the volume of runs of old and Ian Bell, though often delightfully fluid, never inspires total confidence.  The brittleness of the batting was exemplified by Matt Prior’s pair at Lords.  England have relied heavily on his runs in the past 18 months but as a wicket-keeper, he cannot dig them out of a hole every match.  His two failures more than anything exposed England’s shortcomings.  I’m not convinced at all by Jonny Bairstow either.  He scored a fighting 95 against the South Africans at Lords last year and contributed 41 in England’s 1st innings last week but his technique for me still looks a little loose and he is yet to dispel the rumours that he is susceptible to a bit of chin music.  The Yorkshireman has a very good eye but for me that is not enough to thrive at international level.

            Various ‘experts’ have been suggesting that the return of Kevin Pietersen would solve all the problems.  There is no doubt that Pietersen is a wonderful cricketer and any team would be boosted by his presence, but even the Surrey man is not always a safe pair of hands.  Apart from his amazing hundred in India, he contributed relatively little in the four tests in the sub-continent.  Everyone waxes lyrical about his talents and rightly so, but time and again he throws his wicket away far too cheaply for a man of his undoubted ability.

            A lower order with the likes of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann does not contribute often enough with the bat.  Broad in particular has a wonderful technique but lacks the application required to build an innings.  He needs to realise that he cannot just thrash the bat an anything outside off-stump.  Patience and judgement are required to score runs, not just a good eye.  Broad has more than enough ability to become a test number 7 – his century against Pakistan in 2010 is evidence enough, albeit against a supremely dodgy Pakistan attack.  At least he made a timely return to form with an entertaining, run-a-ball 26 in the 2nd innings.

            My criticism of England’s batting is doing a major disservice to the Kiwi’s bowling attack.  The seam trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner bowled with no lack of skill and accuracy which were at times too much for the England batsmen.  Not since the likes of Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Shane Bond have the New Zealanders had such a probing pace attack.  Boult impressed me, giving Compton a torrid time, exposing the flaws in his game.  He has the ability to swing the ball both ways and bowls that nagging Andy Caddick/Glenn McGrath length that is so difficult to score off.  Southee is also no mug with the ball.  His devastating spells on the third evenings and fourth mornings brought New Zealand within sight of a famous victory and he thoroughly deserved his 10-wicket haul.  I like his aggression – he is a tall man and is not afraid to mix it up with odd bumper and keep the batsman guessing.

            One thing that flummoxed me was Kiwi skipper Brendon McCullum’s decision not to have a fielder at point.  Instead he had a gully and a cover point in front of square, and this cost his team a mountain of runs, particularly in the 2nd innings.  Root and Trott were scoring at will through that area and yet McCullum stubbornly refused to change his field.  For me, point is an indispensable position; he not only stops boundaries and catches loose drives, but he can stop the singles too.  It is a no-brainer.

            Bruce Martin’s and Daniel Vettori’s injuries have left the Kiwis with a bowling vacancy for today’s test at Headingley.  It could be a blessing in disguise because the ground is traditionally a seamer’s paradise and the conditions are not dissimilar to back in New Zealand.  Doug Bracewell may well find himself thrust into the fourth seamer role.  He proved in March against England that he is not to be taken lightly.  Moreover Kane Williamson is more than handy as an occasional off-spinner and can be relied upon to bowl an extended spell if required.

            Before this series everyone was brazenly predicting an England walkover.  Did they not pay attention to the matches a couple of months previous?  New Zealand came within a whisker of winning that series.  This Kiwi side is not as soft as everyone thinks.  They do have a worrying propensity for a batting catastrophe (as well as Sunday, they were steamrollered for a sub-100 score in South Africa over the winter) but they also have some talented young cricketers who on their day and with a bit more experience can be a match for any side.  I wouldn’t put it past them to surprise England over the next 5 days.